Who is he: Aaron Wong
With travelling back on the cards, finding the most optimal way to redeem miles for tickets and planning for layovers in swanky airport lounges can be a full-time endeavour for wanderlusting folk. But it’s people like Aaron Wong, founder of The MileLion, that make all of that easier for us regular fliers.
Despite his busy schedule jet-setting around the world, Aaron took some time to clue us in on his favourite airport lounge, the best redemption flight he’s made, and what young adults need to know about credit cards.
1. What are some of your hobbies (besides travelling)?
When I’m not in the air, I play tennis and cook.
I’ve been playing tennis recreationally and competitively since I was 15. What I love about it is that it’s just as much a mental game as a physical one. You need to think about tactics; how to counter different types of players; and how to adapt mid-game if something’s not working. No two matches are the same.
Where cooking is concerned, I love to make pasta, and might be more militant about it than some Italians – no cream in carbonara, bacon is not an acceptable substitute for guanciale, and bronze cut pasta only.
Protip: want a simple way to know if an Italian restaurant is legit? Ask them what brand of dry pasta they use. If they say Barilla, don’t go back. If they say San Remo, leave immediately.
2. What is your favourite food spot in Singapore, and what do you like about it?
Pek Kio Market. Don’t know why it isn’t on the foodie radars, but Wah Kee Big Prawn Noodle serves up the best bowl of prawn noodles I’ve ever had. Yes, the auntie is a food Nazi; just sweet talk her and you’ll be fine.
Wah Kee’s prawn noodles.
Image credit: Eatbook
There’s also very decent chicken rice and other roast meats at Xin Heng Kee. Their chilli is laced with garlic and very addictive.
3. What is your favourite beverage, and where is the best version of it?
Hokkaido milk. It costs 3X the price of the usual Australia/New Zealand stuff, but once you taste it, you’ll know where that money went. It’s good enough to drink on its own and elevates coffee to a whole new level when frothed.
4. What was the latest movie/TV show you watched and was it worth your time?
Matrix Resurrections, on Gulf Air, en route to Singapore. Confusing, incoherent, and quite possibly the worst movie I’ve ever watched. So bad, I’m convinced it was meant to be a meta-commentary on how vapid commercially-driven sequels are. Either that or a big “up yours” from the director to Warner Bros. Possibly both.
5. Three words that people use to describe you:
Engorged. Moist. Gassy.
6. Three words you would use to describe yourself:
Piquant. Turgid. Follicly-impaired.
7. Favourite country or city to visit
Voodoo Doughnuts, Powell’s City of Books, Multnomah Falls and the Columbia River Gorge, Pok Pok fish sauce wings. It’s also just the right amount of weird.
8. Which is your favourite airline that you wouldn’t mind travelling exclusively on for the rest of your life?
At the risk of being unimaginative: Singapore Airlines. People like to complain that the standards have declined, that SIA today isn’t “the way it was 10/20/insert your own time period here” years ago.
Image credit: Aaron Wong
That may be true, but it’s still head and shoulders ahead of many other so-called 5-star airlines. Try flying elsewhere, and you’ll soon come to appreciate the level of polish and professionalism that the SQ cabin crew display. I’ve been on flights where crew shout at passengers, where they’re treated like nothing more than self-loading cargo. That would be unthinkable on SIA, no matter what cabin you fly.
I won’t say that SIA has the absolute best First or Business Class seats in the industry, nor the most inspired lounges. But when you look at the overall package – hard product, soft product – you’ll find few better out there.
9. Which is the best airport in the world in your opinion?
Changi Airport, hands down. You can argue it’s home team bias, but travel around the world enough and you’ll realise how good things are here. No snaking queues, no corrupt customs officials looking for a bribe, and your luggage is out in 2 shakes, it’s home to 2 of the best lounges in the world – Qatar Premium Lounge and Qantas First Lounge.
Image credit: TheSmartLocal
If Changi’s too much of a cop-out, then Tokyo Narita. Yes, it’s further from town than Haneda, but it’s got Sushi Kyotatsu, which I have a particular soft spot for. It isn’t just “good-for-airport” sushi, it’s good sushi, period. And of course, all the opportunities to pick up your Tokyo Banana, Shiroi Koibito, and other Japanese tchotchkes.
10. Which airport has the best lounge?
Food is really important to me, so I’m a big fan of the Qantas First Lounge at Changi Airport, because it almost feels like a restaurant first, lounge second. Neil Perry – of Rockpool Grill fame – designed the menu, and it’s a far cry from the usual tepid buffet items you find in most airport lounges. Think salt and pepper squid, grilled skate – basically atas sambal stingray -, laksa with crayfish, chicken with crispy eggplant, and chocolate fudge cake with milo.
Of course, the lounge also has the usual other creature comforts like shower suites, a fully tended bar, and productivity areas -assuming you haven’t had too much champagne.
11. What is your routine when you board a flight?
Be first in the boarding queue, then dash down the aerobridge so I can take photos of the cabin before it fills up.
Next, photograph every last detail: the seat controls, lighting buttons, storage nooks, inflight entertainment options, tray table, pillows, blankets, and power outlets. What kind of headphones are provided? What kind of wines are they serving? Who’s supplying the products in the amenities kit?
Image credit: Aaron Wong
Then request the first glass of champagne. Finish. Request a second glass. Continue until the sky marshall gets involved.
12. Who are some other content creators that inspire you?
I’m a big fan of the work done by The Woke Salaryman. I may not agree with every post they do, but I admire their ability to break down complicated financial topics into easily understood vignettes. It’s a rare gift. Just as important: they show how it’s possible to do sponsored content right while still maintaining artistic integrity.
I also love the work that Honest Guide is doing, systematically weeding out tourist traps and scams. Protect yourself by watching this before you visit Europe.
13. Why did you decide to start The MileLion?
My first job out of university was with the Mumbai office of a Boston-headquartered management consulting firm. Consulting involves a whole lot of travel, in the course of which you’ll build up a healthy stash of miles and points. The problem was that few people in the office knew how to earn points efficiently or burn them effectively. You’d have people putting major expenses on cards that earned a pittance and redeeming miles on silly things like toasters or shopping vouchers.
I hate seeing value go to waste, so I started doing lunchtime talks on how best to optimise your miles and points, eventually becoming the go-to person in the office for the topic. In May 2015, I decided to start a blog where I could codify everything I knew, just so I wouldn’t have to answer the same question for the gazillionth time. That was the start of The MileLion.
It was never meant to be a full-time thing. I always thought I’d do it for 6 months and then abandon it, like one of those cringey LiveJournal pages you write in JC when you’re 16 and oh-so-misunderstood.
But writing was a form of catharsis for me. When work was piling up and the hours were getting longer, I’d look forward to banging out a blog post on an obscure frequent flyer programme in Latin America, or a little-known loophole that saves you thousands of miles a trip.
Aaron giving a masterclass on miles.
Image credit: Aaron Wong
So I kept at it, and bit by bit the site gained traction. By October 2018. It had reached a level of readership and revenue that made me comfortable enough to try it full-time. Best decision I ever made.
14. What are some common misconceptions that casual travellers have about miles?
Some people think they don’t fly enough to earn miles, and therefore it’s not worth getting involved with a frequent flyer programme. But unless you’re a hardcore road warrior, 90%+ of the miles you earn won’t come from flying – they’ll come from credit cards, hotel stays, car rentals, and other on-ground partners.
Others think that you need to spend big bucks to earn a critical mass of miles. Again, not true. The true measure of a miles hacker is his or her ability to generate maximum returns from minimal spending. With careful use of sign-up bonuses and category spending bonuses, someone spending $30,000 a year could redeem a round-trip Business Class ticket to Japan, and still have enough for a round-trip Economy Class ticket to Bali.
15. Have you met any of your readers on a flight? If so, how was it?
Oh yes, on numerous occasions. I’m just glad I wasn’t digging my nose.
16. What was your most memorable flight redemption experience?
Flying from Frankfurt to Riyadh in Lufthansa First Class. This meant getting access to the First Class Terminal in Frankfurt, with its own restaurant, bar, hotel rooms and soaking tubs. You could even rent a Porsche for 3 hours at just 99 euros, take a spin around the autobahn and drop it back at the terminal.
Champagne and warm nuts were served while Aaron was still on the ground.
Image credit: Aaron Wong
And then on board it was more champagne and fine dining, then into luxury PJs and into bed for a nice long nap.
17. Do you have any advice for young adults getting their first credit card?
Credit cards are a means of not leaving money on the table, not putting more down. Treat credit cards as debit cards with rewards – that is, never use them to spend more than you have. Your bills should be paid off in full and on time, don’t ever carry a balance.
18. If you could improve one thing about miles redemption, what would it be?
In the context of KrisFlyer, I’d like to see a greater willingness to release last-minute award space than let cabins go out empty. You could argue that Spontaneous Escapes – SIA’s monthly redemption promotion that offers 30% off selected destinations for travel in the following month – already does this, but I’m talking about even more last-minute, like redeeming tickets or an upgrade at the check-in counter even.
I’d also like to see them offer more transparency on the waitlist process, such as the number of people waitlisted, an individual’s relative rank on the list, and the number of seats remaining on the flight. This would help people make more informed decisions about whether or not they should keep waiting or need to look for alternatives.
19. How much do you think you have saved over the years by redeeming miles and points?
If you add up the retail value of all the flights I’ve redeemed, it’s easily $400-500K. Of course, that figure is only meaningful if I were willing to pay cash for those seats – something I’m not in a position to do!
Therefore, the question isn’t really how much I’ve saved, it’s more about the kinds of experiences miles and points have allowed me to have, and in that respect, I’ve certainly gotten my fair share.
Aaron took a helicopter ride to the Tasman Glacier in New Zealand.
Image credit: Aaron Wong
20. What’s next for The MileLion?
With Covid-19 restrictions easing, I’m looking forward to hosting a few more in-person events for the miles and points community to meet and mingle. It’s always great to talk to fellow fanatics and pick up more useful tips and tricks.
Likewise, there’s so many cabin products and lounges out there I’ve yet to review. I can’t wait to get out there and try them first hand – and of course write about the experience!
One thing’s for sure, there’s never a dull moment in the world of travel hacking.
This post is part of our larger feature on content creators. If you’d like to be featured, or have a nominee in mind, please drop us a note at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Cover image adapted from: Aaron Wong